Thursday, March 27, 2014

Samurai Champloo 25 - "Evanescent Encounter (Part 2)"

Samurai Champloo's concluding three-parter, “Evanescent Encounter” has a lot of narrative work to do. On top of the task of bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion – a Herculean labour in any TV show, one that anime shows in particular have a habit of botching – it also needs to bring together a story that has been disparate and episodic, ranging over a host of genres and tones, and make it seem like all one satisfying progression to a climactic moment. The search for the samurai that smells like sunflower has been until this point something of a quixotic dream, maybe even a joke, the thin framing device used to put these characters together. Now, it takes central stage, and we need to believe that the sunflower samurai has been essential to the series all along.

Once upon a time, this would not have been a problem. In the age of fully episodic TV, a finale could just be a regular episode with perhaps a bit more in the way of dramatic stakes. It didn't really have to tie together the entirety of what had come before. But in our day even episodic series like Samurai Champloo make pretensions to an ongoing narrative, a narrative that must ultimately be settled. So these episodes take great pains to assert that the seemingly rambling narrative has actually been a seamless whole. One-off characters from past adventures are mentioned, and we learn that there's been a hidden force guiding our characters' mission this whole time. I'm not sure that this is entirely successful, nor do I think it needs to be: fragmented narratives are not intrinsically worse than singular ones, and offer pleasures and possibilities that one continual story does not.

Evanescent Encounter” succeeds as a finale in another way: by taking the series's usual ideas and amplifying them, turning the rhythms of an episode into a movie-length maxi-adventure. While there are plenty of atypical installments, your average episode of Samurai Champloo has a kind of pattern: the central trio roll into town, hungry and broke, get split up, run into a character with ambiguous allegiances, there's some swordfighting, and ultimately they're the few that get out alive. The conclusion escalates all of these trends to their highest points.

The first part of “Evanescent Encounter” mostly concerned itself with the first part of this plot. Fuu leaves the group, as she has on numerous times before, but this time it is treated more seriously: after a rare harmonious night by the fire, she leaves a heartfelt letter and dismisses her two alleged bodyguards. Fuu leaving, which would previously be a comic beat to set up the plot, is here allowed to be a genuinely emotional moment. It is not the comedic act of an impetuous girl but the proverbial sparrow leaving the nest, with Fuu finally deciding to confront her problems on her own. Similarly, we have more and more important guest characters with ambiguous allegiances, and they seem even stranger than the usual crop. There's a samurai more skillful than any seen before in the series, and a trio of assassins that . And then of course there's the sunflower samurai, who has achieved a colossal presence in the series despite having yet to appear.

The second episode in this trilogy opens with a recap, a rarity in Samurai Champloo. The recap is mostly functional, but contains some interesting choices. We get almost all of Fuu's letter, set to quiet and contemplative beats and shots of Mugen and Jin walking in a daze through the town. This suggests that the emotive impact of Fuu's departure and the perhaps-final splitting of the party is what is really important, instead of the more plotty developments that occurred in the first part. Fuu's letter gets so much weight in the short recap because it is what we are supposed to have taken away from the previous episode. The music, rather than psyching the viewer up for a climactic fight, reinforces the sense of ambivalence and maybe even loss to Champloo's conclusion.

The beat changes to something higher-paced when the episode proper starts, and with it the seemingly climactic swordfight between Mugen & Jin and Kagetogi Kariya, the shogun's hired man and hence the bearer of institutional power. Kariya draws his sword in slow motion, while Mugen rushes forward, apparently more in time with the music. In the past, Mugen's wild fighting style has made him appear a force of nature, as in the chilling final scene of “Misguided Miscreants”. Here, it makes him look sloppy and careless next to Kariya's delicate swordsmanship, and Mugen's wide swings come nowhere close to drawing blood.

Fight scenes, when done properly, are really character moments – the way in which a character fights reveals something about their personality, or at least their history. So Mugen fights in a way that is powerful but undisciplined, willing to chanllenge orthodoxy and make a ruckus – as he does in his assault on Kariya when he tries to use a barrel of beans as a weapon. But none of this works against Kariya. Reflecting his placid character, a personality that almost doesn't register, Kariya appears to momentarily become a ghost and take Mugen by suprise.

Jin battles Kariya one-on-one later in the episode, and doesn't fare much better. The fight is your classic samurai duel, which is to say that it's basically symmetrical, with swords flying fast but always meeting in the middle – until one doesn't. Jin's style and ethos are too close to Kariya, the avatar of authoritarian power. He is exceptionally good at following the laws of swordsmanship, but this will never succeed against the man who writes the laws.

We learn via flashbacks that Kariya previously wanted to enlist Jin's school of samurai as assassins, and ordered Jin's master to kill his prized pupil. Jin surpasses his master in a quick late-night scuffle, but the real father figure here is the man who controlled his master all along, and who represents the state-supported system of honour that Jin has been cast out of. This bit of backstory resolves the moral ambiguity that's been with Jin since we learned he killed his master, putting his actions in the best possible light. In that, it is simply convenient storytelling, but it also serves a greater purpose: establishing Kariya as the paternal force that Jin has to overcome in order to leave behind societal rules and truly be his own person.

It's worth noting that Mugen and Jin appear to have the most success when fighting Kariya two-on-one, although this is quickly abandoned as not suiting honour or ego. Mugen and Jin are foils for each other, reserved and classical matched against of outspoken and wild. This is also reflected in their fighting styles. Jin's classical kenjitsu is more beautiful, but it lacks the kinetic energy that Samurai Champloo finds in Mugen's style and the hip-hop music it samples. To stretch the metaphor a bit too far, Jin is the classical chanbara element of the series, and Mugen is its anachronistic remix side. Fuu is, I dunno, it's emotional core, or maybe the act of creation involved in bringing the two together.

This is why it's crucial for the series that Jin and Mugen never resolve their delayed battle. This is not just because it would kill off one of the main characters. For Samurai Champloo to ultimately make one man's style victorious to the other would deny the power, both aesthetic and philosophical, that Champloo finds in the other. The series's entire ethos is the merging of the modern and the traditional, of chaotic creativity and orderly aesthetics. Mugen and Jin began the series alone and in mortal peril, and when the party seems to finally have separated for good their existence is almost immediately threatened.

This is underlined by the cut to Fuu on her own. While Fuu has her own strengths, she is physically the weakest of the group, and as such is vulnerable to any two-bit shogunate thug she runs across on her own. It should be said here that Samurai Champloo does not have the most progressive gender politics. Fuu often plays the role of the damsel in distress, with her stubborn pride and rambunctious affect being the only form of resistance she can offer in a world of violence. She is often sexually imperilled, as in the multiple times she is trapped in a brothel, and there are undertones of that in this scene. Fuu isn't even touched by her opponent's blade before she falls to her knees. Her yukata rides up and Fuu has to hold the fabric so as not to expose her crotch, highlighting her sexual vulnerability.

Her assailant crouches down next to her and appears to molest her. As much as Fuu has been sexually threatened over the course of the series, this is the only scene where she is actually abused. Absent her protectors, Fuu's spiritual strengths offer little protection against the world of masculine violence she finds herself in. When trying to escape, we see her running as fast as she can through the grass, but her pursuer only has to speed-walk. In a world defined by the physical, Fuu simply doesn't have the right body [1].

So of course, Mugen has to go to the island and rescue Fuu. There's a brief exchange between him and Jin in which Mugen clearly wants to be the one to fight Kariya, but eventually agrees to accept the less glorious mission of rescuing Fuu from a less impressive group of baddies. This would appear to be callousness on both men's part, but the subtext of the scene suggests that this is a careful negotiation that involves an evaluation of the relationships between the trio.

Throughout most of Samurai Champloo there's been little romantic tension between the main trio, especially considering that in different hands the same premise would have instantly resulted in a love triangle. The central characters even correspond to the archetypes in a two-suitors romance: the wild but sexy Mugen, the dull but dependable Jin, and the woman stuck between them. Samurai Champloo takes these characters' flaws to extremes: instead of being a sexy outlaw Mugen's wildness makes him an unappealing brute, while Jin's devotion to the straight-and-narrow makes him frightening, and Fuu's desire to postpone the conflict between the two becomes petulance. In this way, Samurai Champloo chooses farce over romance.

But there have been glimmers of attraction between Fuu and Jin throughout, and a moonlight conversation between the two in “Evanescent Encounter Part 1” would seem to confirm a degree of affection. But Fuu ultimately ends their conversation with the ambiguous phrase “Because Mugen is... I'm sorry”. When Jin flashes back to the scene in Part 2, this is the only line he recalls. Jin seems to interpret this as Fuu refusing him in favour of her love for Mugen, but I think it's more likely that she recognizes that choosing one man to have an affair with would disrupt the essential unity of their trio[2]. This is akin to her refusal to allow Mugen and Jin to fight, postponing the inevitable choice that will collapse a dynamic trinity into an uncomfortable dyad. Jin sends Mugen after her, but perhaps it would be better if both ronin went together. In the end, their decision to separate ends up nearly killing all of them.

Fuu is kept captive in a ruined church, with a red cross the only undamaged thing in sight. This is as good a time as any to talk about the role Christianity plays in this plot. We learned in the last episode that the Sunflower Samurai was the leader of a group of reclusive and persecuted Christians. The struggle between Japanese Christians and the dominant culture has popped up in a number of episodes before, and is presented here as a fairly straightforward group of virtuous rebels.

It seems at first a little strange for a contemporary series to celebrate Christianity as a form of rebellion against the mainstream. But I don't think that it's the specific precepts and values of Christianity that Shinichiro Watanabe wants to praise. Rather, it's the presence of Christians in a predominantly Shinto society as a marker of cultural hybridity – the same hybridity that comes from, say, using hip-hop music in a samurai anime [3].

Samurai Champloo presents Edo Japan as a society on a doomed quest to enforce cultural purity. It sees the mixing and remixing of cultures as not just inevitable but ultimately beautiful. This is in evidence throughout the several episodes involving improbable encounters with foreigners (“Artistic Anarchy”, “Stranger Searching”, “Baseball Blues”). Samurai Champloo makes us aware of the shogunate's extensive and complicated attempts to regulate cultural exchange, and how the influence of Western society seeps through anyways. In “Evanescent Encounter”, this cultural warfare becomes literal violent combat.

Christianity is in itself not a force for hybridity and openness – the Old Testament in particular is obsessed with purity. In “Unholy Union” Samurai Champloo shows some skepticism to the religious impulse, while still portraying the Christians as more or less virtuous. But it also recognizes that even a conservative piece of culture can become revolutionary when it becomes hybridized, as in fact Japanese Christianity did during the Shimabara Rebellion. Similarly, the mostly flawed personalities of Mugen, Fuu, and Jin become something more – something disruptive – when they are put together.

Ultimately, these are really the values that Samurai Champloo celebrates – hybridity, openness, and rebellion against a hegemonic society. These values inform the show's style arguably more than they do the content of its stories. Champloo exults hybridity in both word and deed. It's possible to criticize this aesthetic politics as merely a neoliberal celebration of individual creativity, but I think that ignores that the series's protagonists never fare well on their own, and need each other in order to create a truly hybrid social unit. It's this kind of new, artificially-fashioned unit that Champloo tentatively suggests is truly heroic.

[1] I'd have to go back to check on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if the stories in which Fuu has the most power are the ones in which she is comically overweight.

[2] It's possible to take a pro-polyamory message out of this, as in this reading of the Hunger Games. If you're so inclined, that is.

[3]Japanese Christians play a similar role in Watanabe's series Kids on the Slope.